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Teenager with juvenile idiopathic arthritis becomes ambassador, advocate for others with the disease

After being diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, Jarrett was forced to make adjustments to his dreams of being an athlete. But in many other ways, his goals and ambitions have expanded.
Jarrett Michie (left) and his mother Kim Michie (right), smile during a recent visit to University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.

The next time life throws a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in your path, consider Jarrett Michie.

In many ways, the 14-year-old Apple Valley boy is an ordinary teenager, a tall kid with big dreams, lots of energy and a talent for athletics. There’s nothing to indicate that he also suffers from juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a debilitating disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own cells and tissues.

Patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis can experience years—or even a lifetime—of joint pain, swelling, stiffness or immobility. 

Since his diagnosis four years ago, Jarrett has undergone regular treatments with ice packs and hot baths, and medicines taken at home. There are cortisone-like shots, sometimes directly into his swollen joints. Jarrett needs special accommodations at school, because he’s unable to sit for long periods of time. And he makes monthly visits to University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where he receives infusions of “biologics”—advanced drugs designed to keep his immune system in check.

The diagnosis has forced Jarrett to make adjustments to his athletic ambitions. But his dreams and goals have also expanded in other ways. 

He has become an ambassador for others with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. He and his family have collected hundreds of toys for other patients at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital during annual toy drives. In 2013, the family’s efforts produced more than $22,000 in donations for the Juvenile Arthritis March. Jarrett recently visited Washington, D.C., to help lobby for arthritis research funding. For his efforts, he received a “Star of the North” volunteer award from U.S. Representative John Kline.

Learn more about our pediatric rheumatology services at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.

“It’s all about positive attitudes, not letting what happens to you control you,” Jarrett said. He isn’t in this fight alone, either. “I get a lot of help from my mom and dad and our friends, the doctors and people in the community.”

It’s an attitude shared by everyone in Jarrett’s family.

When Jarrett was originally diagnosed, his mother Kim Michie said she didn’t even know kids could get arthritis. 

“That night, we sat down and I said, ‘OK, this is obviously going to change your life. You can go down the path of feeling sorry for yourself, or you can be proactive, help yourself and help others.’”

University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Rheumatologist Richard Vehe, MD, who is in charge of Jarrett’s case, said the teenager seized on his mother’s advice with a vengeance.

“This disease has really transformed him, and he had responded in such a positive way,” Vehe said. “He and Kim have these toy drives, they host movie nights at the hospital. They get an idea—it’s always some really thoughtful, empathetic idea—and if it’s inconvenient for them, so what? The first toy drive they had, their house was overrun with toys!”

Though juvenile idiopathic arthritis is still considered “incurable,” medical researchers are making rapid progress in helping those with the disease enjoy relatively normal lives, Vehe said. 

Biologics—precision-guided therapies that help quiet overactive immune systems—have become available within the last 15 years and are dramatically effective, Vehe said. Still, Jarrett’s treatment is a work in progress, he added. 

“Long term, I’m optimistic. Medical technology changes quickly, the leading edge today is often considered old-fashioned tomorrow. My goal is to keep him in good shape, not just for now, but for 80 years from now,” Vehe said.

Jarrett’s mother Kim believes Dr. Vehe and the staff at the Journey Clinic at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital have become vital partners in their battle against arthritis.

“We do feel blessed to be going there. Masonic Children’s is, by far, the most amazing hospital. When Jarrett walks into the Journey Clinic, all the nurses and staff are like family.”